You want to improve your grammar, but you’re disinclined to invest time and energy to laboriously study print or online resources about sentence construction. You’ve seen ads on the Internet about grammar checkers, and you decide to check them out. How useful is grammar-checking software?
After visiting five grammar-checker websites and using (the free versions of) their products, my conclusion is that software is no substitute for wetware (otherwise known as your brain). Here are my brief reports about the software I sampled.
Grammarbase.com fallaciously flagged “ought to be” and “may be” as examples of passive voice — a common misunderstanding of the topic. (Passive voice is a backward-facing construction such as “This sentence was written by me”; “I wrote this sentence” is the active alternative. Verb form is not the primary issue.) Worse, there were several real grammatical and syntactical errors in the site’s introductory text (which I used as a test sample for this and the other sites); the grammar-checking tool found none of them.
When I copied and pasted the sample text into GrammarCheck.net’s tool, it showed the same poor results as Grammarbase.com’s. However, when I clicked on the site’s Advanced Report button, it took me to . . .
Grammarly found nearly fifty errors (or, more accurately, instances of concern), mostly involving what the site terms “writing style,” in the introductory text taken from Grammarbase.com. (The free version did not specifically identify the errors.) When I then plugged in the raw, error-laden version of a copyediting test, it found fewer mistakes than revealed in the Grammarbase.com text but gave the test text a lower score.
PaperRater found no errors in Grammarbase.com’s text and only two in the text for the copyediting test — both concerning misuse of hyphens.
Spellcheckplus.com was stymied by the phrase “not only should the structure of your writing be solid,” reminding me about noun-verb agreement (irrelevant in this case) and by the phrase “your basic default word processor grammar checker,” alerting me that if by using your I meant “you are,” it should read you’re (again, irrelevant).
However, it advised changing you’ll to “you will” and noted that a letter space should both precede and follow an ellipsis and that the first two words in “run on sentences” should be hyphenated — all valid but superficial corrections.
My tests were not rigorous, and I did not purchase any of this software — I merely took a test drive of each company’s freeware trial. However, the only difference I can see between the free and paid versions of these software products is that the paid versions not only flag your errors but also analyze them. The problem is that, whether in simple or advanced mode, these tools missed just about every error that matters in a grammatical review.
These tests confirmed my suspicion that grammar-checking software can at best note only the most elementary errors (and sometimes marks valid constructions as mistakes). Grammar is much too complicated and nuanced to trust to technology. If you want to write well, learn to write well. If you want to have your writing reviewed and evaluated, access the brain of another human being. But don’t even think of relying on software.